Leonardo Castro brings his friendly, positive outlook and love of hip hop to everything he does at SOAR365. As his career has moved him from Miami to Austin to Richmond, he’s displayed a continuous passion for empowering people from marginalized communities.
Whether mentoring his students within the school system or working with nonprofits to teach digital literacy to people coming out of prison and people experiencing homelessness, Leo has often found a common thread: disability. “What I realized is a lot of these people have a disability, diagnosed or undiagnosed,” Leo says.
Disability was familiar to Leo, having grown up with an older sister who has CP and is nonverbal. The youngest of nine children, Leo often found himself in a caretaking role as he assisted his mother. “It was a natural transition for me to get into the disability world because I had personal experience,” Leo explains.
Leo now works at SOAR365 in Supported Employment, helping people with disabilities acquire career skills and find the right job for them. Every step of the way, Leo’s empathetic approach builds connections.
From left to right: Tony and DeAngelo (Supported Employment participants), Leo, and Greg McQuade and Curtis of WTVR. Click here to view the story that WTVR filmed.
As an employment specialist (or “job coach”), Leo’s first priority is to conduct initial assessments, getting to know each participant and engaging in simulated work activities. This helps Leo to understand each individual’s unique talents, challenges and preferences, but it also helps participants find their own inner motivations for employment.
It is here that Leo’s experience as both an educator and a hip hop producer really shines. Openly sharing his interests inspires our participants to identify their own goals and dream big. “I’ve incorporated (hip hop) in a lot of my educational work. I kind of wear that on my sleeve; it’s my passion,” he says, adding that it’s always been an advantage for him in working with youth.
His enthusiasm is contagious, and hip hop in particular provides an artistic and cultural touchstone for many of SOAR365’s participants. Leo frequently uses freestyling and musical collaboration as an incentive to help them complete difficult tasks, reach goals, or calm unwanted behaviors. It’s even allowed participants to bond with each other and improve their interpersonal skills.
Leo’s gift for building connection helps his clients to see themselves and where they fit into the world in a new way. In addition to career skills training, he regularly engages participants in trips to the mall or the public library to build confidence in social situations. He also reaches out to local businesses to develop key relationships and works closely with our participants’ employers and families, making sure he has a thorough understanding of their needs and working to address any challenges head on.
This may include arranging transportation, providing in-person support, or re-arranging work schedules for better performance. As Supported Employment participants become more independent in the workplace, Leo continues to provide accountability and encouragement through regular texts, calls, and Teams virtual meetings.
“Part of what we have to do as employment specialists is help them to see there are more opportunities out there. Don’t settle, because you can do more,” says Leo. “Let’s analyze and think about future goals. Keep building, keep building.”
With dedicated employment specialists like Leo believing in them, our Supported Employment participants can really soar!
To find out more about the work SOAR365 Employment Specialists do or see how participants in our Supported Employment program partner with business around Richmond, visit the Supported Employment section of our website.